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Weeklies on rule-of-law criticism by the European Commission

October 12th, 2020

Opposition-leaning commentators believe the European Union is still too weak to enforce its rule of law criteria, while pro-government columnists dismiss criticism from Brussels as both discriminatory and biased.

Commenting on the EU report on the state of the rule of law in Hungary in his Élet és Irodalom front-page editorial, János Széky dwells on the difference between the Anglo-Saxon concept of the rule of law, as opposed to the very similar but less clear notion of ‘Rechtstaat’ (in its German original), frequently translated into English as ‘legal state’. Pro-government officials are correct when they claim that the latter lacks clearly defined criteria, he writes. In the case of Hungary, however, he suggests that this is mere hair splitting. Instead of repeating that there are problems with the judiciary, with the handling of corruption and with media pluralism in Hungary, he believes the European Union should simply declare that in Hungary there is no liberal democracy, and the government doesn’t want one. Széky would find it salutary if the European Union were to try to defend democracy as such, instead of discussing the condition of its individual components.

In a very similar vein in Heti Világgazdaság, András Hont finds the report on the state of the rule of law in Hungary by the European Commission too mild. He believes the European Union should have been more resolute in its language. To illustrate his argument, he cites remarks like ‘tight interconnections between certain national businesses are conducive to corruption’, and ‘the transparency of media ownership is not fully guaranteed’ or again that ‘media concentration has increased the dangers to media pluralism’. In reality, he believes, the Constitutional Court doesn’t fully control the operation of the state and therefore he would have preferred the report to say outright that there is no rule of law in Hungary. He thinks the ‘spiritual bases’ of the rule of law were shattered in Hungary in the autumn of 2006 when, as he sees it, Hungary became a theatre of war. (For the different interpretations of the street conflicts in the autumn of 2006, see e.g. BudaPost, November 2, 2015.)

In the print edition of Mandiner, Balázs Orbán, deputy cabinet minister in charge of the Prime Minister’s office finds it mistaken for the European Commission to declare that media pluralism is in danger in Hungary. The report expresses concern about a foundation which runs several hundred outlets, declaring that such a concentration is a threat to the pluralism of the media. Orbán, who is only a namesake of the Prime Minister, argues that that Hungarian foundation is dwarfed by the German Bertelsmann conglomerate, which has huge influence on the European Commission and runs 59 TV channels and 31 radio stations throughout Europe, including Hungary’s most-watched television station, RTL Klub. He thinks it would be much more fruitful to measure pluralism according to the extent critical messages reach the citizenry. He quotes a study by opposition-leaning think tank Mérték Média Műhely (Measure Media Workshop) which shows that the two big commercial TV channels reach practically all Hungarian households, thus citizens have access to RTL news. Orbán also refers to data on the reach of opposition-leaning and pro-government media outlets to prove that their audiences are practically equal in magnitude.

In his weekly editorial on Demokrata, András Bencsik criticises the European Union for considering LGBT matters as serious criteria in evaluating the state of the rule of law in a country. In other words, he writes, this means that the existence of rule of law depends on whether little children can be harmed by LGBT propaganda. He quotes a pro-government analyst who writes that a war is underway over these issues, but one that is being fought with fairy tales, NGOs and newspaper articles. (For the controversy on a new book of fairy tales, including one in which the protagonists are gay, see BudaPost, October 10.)  Bencsik accuses the West of considering ‘abnormal to be good, while normal should be regarded as despicable’. In conclusion, he agrees with Prime Minister Orbán who described Hungary as a tolerant country but added: ‘leave our children alone’.

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